BHP, The Church Missionary Society and Old Charlie

Our History and the Christian Connection

Old Charlie

Murabuda WurramarrbaSenior Elder

Tony Wurramarrba Chairman of the Board of the Land Council

Murabuda Wurramarrba’s son Tony, reached out and dropped his Order of Australia onto his father’s coffin. “He was the better man,” says Tony. “He taught me all I know, and he deserves it more than I do.”

What caused this man to have such a deep regard for his deceased father?

Tony’s story goes back at least two generations and it starts with his grandfather, affectionately known as ‘Old Charlie’.

“Old Charlie” Galiawa became a legend. Born in 1890, he had seen and known the Macassans. These were the fishermen-traders from Indonesia, who came annually to the North Australian coasts, hundreds of years before the European discovery of Australia. 

The Macassans brought with them culinary delights, including tamarinds, chilli and beer which they often used to try and bargain with the locals for access to women. These incursions, in breach of strict laws, caused skirmishes and social issues, including the occasional abduction of women for their return journey to Indonesia. It’s no surprise then that Indonesian historical records report a number of massacres by the Aboriginal people.

Trade with the Macassans ceased abruptly in 1906 due to changes to Commonwealth Government laws regarding Australian waters and fishing rights.

First contact with the later arriving Europeans is well-documented although slightly contentious. According to historical records, Willem van Coolsteerdt first sighted Groote Eylandt in 1623 aboard the Dutch ship Arnhem. In 1644, Abel Tasman, in the service of the Dutch East India Company, arrived on the island’s shores pronouncing it ‘Groote’ or great – meaning large. 

However, the prevalence of the debilitating neurodegenerative brain disorder, Machado-Josephs Disease on the island suggests that Portuguese visitors may have been among the first of the Europeans to arrive in approximately 1558, with alternative histories suggesting that 25 Portuguese settlers and merchants landed on Groote at this time.

According to the US National Library of Medicine this debilitating disease, Machado-Josephs Disease (MJD) had its origins in Asia, however its transmission around the world could be traced back to the Portuguese. 

It wasn’t until nearly 400 years later that the Anglican missionaries, under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (‘CMS’) came bringing with them the Christian Bible, food and the promise of salvation. 

They arrived in the 1921 and Old Charlie was one of those remarkable Groote Eylandt men who welcomed the first Christian missionaries. There does not appear to be any record of when and how Old Charlie became a follower of Jesus.

He helped to establish the CMS (Church Missionary Society) Mission at Emerald River, the historic place the Groote Eylandters now call “Old Mission”. Old Charlie brought his family to live beside the mission, as one of the first Christian families. There at the Emerald River Mission, his son, Murabuda, was born in 1934.

As Murabuda grew up embracing the Christian teachings of his parents, he was described as man of faith, powerful yet gentle, traditional but always open to change. A man with a boundless desire for helping his family and his people.

When Old Charlie died, Murabuda became the head of the Wurramarrba clan and one of the senior elders of Groote Eylandt.

Groote Eylandt was faced with an increase in young boys being addicted to the deadly poison of petrol sniffing. Murabuda single-handedly broke the fatal cycle, taking the boys away to survive by fishing and hunting on an isolated island.

There are many lessons to draw from this extraordinary life, including the largely overlooked benefits that early missions bought into aboriginal communities. 

Far from losing their aboriginal uniqueness, Murabuda modelled to his clan, as his father before him, aboriginal and a Christian and not become ‘white’. 

In his own old age, Murabuda helped found Groote Eylandt’s version of a men’s shed where he was still making spears and art until only a few weeks before his death.

A strong father figure who led by example, Murabuda raised his children to be like him. He was the father (or head) of an exceptional Groote Eylandt family, and they have followed his example of personal integrity and public service. 

Murabuda never lost the Christian faith of his childhood at the mission. He read the Bible and applied its teachings to his life. The sad reality, however, is that the institutional church did not always understand Murabuda. Murabuda and several other strong, talented and dedicated young Groote Eylandt men reached young manhood in the 1950s.

The church should have nurtured them, encouraged their leadership potential and ordained them as church leaders. Insightful missionaries proposed that they be trained and ordained. The conservative wider church, however, placed impossible hurdles in their way, insisting on at least seven years of absence from their communities in order to complete high school and theological degrees in Sydney and undertake urban parish experience prior to ordination. So, nothing happened.

The 1950s brought white men in search of a different kind of wealth, hidden deep in the ground. In 1964 the Church Missionary Society and BHP agreed on royalty payments to allow mining. Mineral exploration began in earnest and in 1965 the Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO) began mining manganese.

The CMS as the owner of the prospecting rights was legally entitled to all the manganese royalties but CMS did not receive or expect any recompense for their efforts. They set up the Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Trust with its own Aboriginal management to which all the royalties are still given today.

When the CMS left in 1971 leaving many mission buildings in their wake, including a beautiful open-air church on the banks of the Angurugu River where the community of Angurugu now stands. Also, CMS negotiated royalties with GEMCO for the mining rights in the Groote Eylandt area and whilst they were the legal beneficiaries they signed all these rights over to the Anindilyakwa people. 

Mining royalties have allowed the Anindilyakwa people to incorporate many very successful businesses, including the Eylandt Lodge – a resort based around cultural tourism; Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises; Aminjarrinja and others.

Today, this mining still occurs, mainly on the western side of the island, with respect for the wishes of the Anindilyakwa people, who wish to conserve their beaches and oceans for generations to come. GEMCO, now owned by South32, is today seen as a partner for the Anindilyakwa people in providing employment, training and financial security for their children’s future.

Murabuda’s eldest son Tony Wurramarrba is chairman of the Groote Eylandt Land Council. Tony accompanied Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce on an overseas tour of Indigenous communities including Native Canadians. He was recently awarded the Order of Australia.

The legacy of this strong Christian Aboriginal family from Old Charlie through his son Murabuda and grandson Tony is testimony to the power and influence of the Christian message in all cultures.

Complied by Graham McDonald with permission from John Harris.

None of this information from the Wurramarrba people is to be used without permission from John Harris.